Monday, 20 August 2012

Naming Names: The Rise & Fall of Confidential Magazine Part Two

Confidential was not only the most notorious gossip magazine of the Fifties, but perhaps of all time. Founded in 1952 by publisher Robert Harrison, by 1955 it had a circulation of around 5 million. What is more, it had grown in power to the point to where it could even bully Hollywood. With a network of informants ranging from brothel madams to low level actors, not to mention private detectives and lawyers on its payroll, Confidential had a knack for uncovering facts about major stars that the studios might not want the public to know. Worse yet, the magazine would reveal these facts in stories laced with innuendo and suggestion. Even when the kernel of fact in any given story was not that serious, the innuendo could be very damaging. By 1955 Hollywood considered Confidential a serious threat to its stars' careers.

It was in 1955, then, that Hollywood began to fight back. The first shot in what would become a long running battle was fired by prominent attorney Jerry Giesler, who had defended Errol Flynn in his infamous statutory rape case and who had defended producer Walter Wanger when he was accused of shooting an agent for allegedly paying too much attention to wife and actress Joan Bennett. In July 1955 Jerry Giesler filed a lawsuit on behalf of tobacco heiress Doris Duke, whom Confidential had alleged was having an affair with her African American chauffeur. Jerry Giesler threw down the gauntlet before the magazine, saying, "My clients have decided to fight...We'll hound them through every court in the country.  We'll file civil libel suits and criminal libel complaints...The smut is going to stop."  Robert Mitchum (whom the magazine claimed attended a party naked) and actress Lizabeth Scott (whom Confidential claimed spent her time off work with "baritone babes," a euphemism for lesbians), both Jerry Giesler's clients, also sued the magazine in mid-1955.  While Doris Duke would win her lawsuit, Robert Mitchum's case would eventually be dismissed and Lizabeth Scott would simply drop her lawsuit.

Confidential would also be hit from a front far away from the bright lights of Hollywood. On 27 August 1955 Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield issued a "withhold from dispatch" order that barred the magazine from being sent through the mails, presumably because the Post Office thought the magazine violated its rules about obscene materials. Robert Harrison responded with a lawsuit for not informing Confidential of the order, not holding a hearing before issuing the order, and failing to give any grounds for issuing the order. Confidential would win the lawsuit, but throughout 1956 the magazine would fight the Post Office over each issue. Confidential won every time.

Hollywood would also fight Confidential on other fronts besides the courtroom. Long running fan magazine Photoplay would launch its own attack on Confidential and its imitators in its July 1955 issue. While Photoplay mentioned neither Confidential nor the other scandal magazines by name, it did attack the ethics of the magazines and indicated that it thought such publications were manipulative. Photoplay would also give the stars an arena from which they could counter accusations made by Confidential and its imitators. In its January 1956 issue Photoplay published an article on Robert Mitchum and his lawsuit against Confidential. In the February 1956 issue of Photoplay Kim Novak was able to answer charges that Confidential had made that she had basically slept her way into stardom. In the February 1957 issue of Photoplay Rory Calhoun responded to the story in Confidential about his juvenile delinquency, emphasising that he had long since reformed.

Hollywood also responded to Confidential with a film that dealt with a similar, although fictitious, gossip magazine. Slander (1957) featured Van Johnson as a children's show entertainer whose criminal past is exposed by a scandal magazine called Real Truth (the plot would seem to be inspired by the story published in Confidential about Rory Calhoun's past). While Slander outlined the techniques used by Confidential and other scandal magazines of the time, no effort was made to examine the popularity of such magazines. Instead the movie plays out largely as a morality play about good and evil with the publisher (played by screen heavy Steve Cochran) so reprehensible that even his mother disapproves of what he does for a living.

Of course, it was not just movie stars that Confidential targeted. The magazine would publish stories on other public figures as well. In 1956 Confidential published a story that outed President Eisenhower's former Appointments Secretary and then lecturer at the University of Miami, Arthur H. Vandenberg, Jr., as a homosexual. He wound up resigning his position at the University of Miami. Then Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles was also outed as a homosexual by the magazine in an article published in March 1956. Mr. Welles consulted attorneys about suing the magazine for $1 million, but he desisted when they informed him that the legitimate press could then publish details from the Confidential article.

Regardless, Hollywood remained the prime target of Confidential and Hollywood continued to fight back. The turning point was 1957, when the film industry would finally strike some firm blows against the magazine. It was in May 1957 that California Attorney General Pat Brown gave into pressure from Hollywood and decided to try to indict Robert Harrison, Confidential magazine, and its fellow scandal magazines for criminal libel and the publication of obscene materials. It was then on 15 May 1957 that a grand jury indicted Robert Harrison and Confidential magazine on charges of criminal libel, conspiracy to circulate lewd and obscene material, conspiracy to circulate material pertaining to abortions (then illegal in the state of California), and conspiracy to circulate material pertaining to male rejuvenation. Among the star witnesses at the grand jury trial were former Confidential employee Howard Rushmore, who was only too eager to spill the beans on his former employer, Liberace, and actress Maureen O'Hara (more about Miss O'Hara later).

Having been indicted, Robert Harrison and Confidential could now be tried before a petit jury for the crime of criminal libel. Before the case proceeded to trial, however, one of the biggest movie stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood would make her own attack against the magazine. In the February 1957 issue of Confidential it was alleged that actress Maureen O'Hara and a "Latin Lothario" had sex in the balcony of Grauman's Chinese Theatre. The story was not a cover story and, in fact, was buried in the contents of the magazine. Regardless,  Miss O'Hara was outraged. Not only did she testify before the grand jury in May, but on 9 July 1957 Maureen O'Hara initiated a libel lawsuit against Confidential.  Initially she asked for only $1 million, but later she increased the amount of damages to $5 million. At first Miss O'Hara had the support of the film industry. In fact, two other celebrities also sued the magazine about the same time: Liberace for the notorious story from Confidential's July 1957 issue, "Why Liberace's Theme Song Should Be 'Mad About the Boy'," and Dorothy Dandridge for a story claiming she had sex in the woods. Ultimately Liberace and Miss Dandridge would settle with the magazine and Maureen O'Hara discovered she was going to receive no help from the film industry whatsoever.

Regardless, Miss O'Hara continued with her lawsuit. When the representatives from  Confidential testified, they gave the exact date that they claimed the incident between Maureen O'Hara and her alleged lover took place at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in 1954. Maureen O'Hara found it simple to prove the accusation false. She simply showed her passport, which was dated and stamped, showing she was at that time in Spain shooting Fire Over Africa. In the end Maureen O'Hara achieved something no other star before her had--she defeated Confidential in a court of law. Miss O'Hara's victory over the magazine would prove instrumental in its downfall.

It was only a little over a month after Maureen O'Hara had initiated her lawsuit against Confidential that the criminal libel trial against the magazine began on 15 August 1957. While the movie industry was eager to destroy Confidential, they became very nervous when the magazine's attorney Arthur Crowley announced his intention to subpoena 200 different stars. Hollywood knew all too well that the trial would mean dredging up potentially damaging stories published in the past few years in the magazine. Many big name actors went into hiding or left the state of California entirely to avoid testifying at the trial. Regardless, the trial would not be without witnesses for either the defence or the prosecution. Among the celebrities who did testify were Maureen O'Hara, the woman would help bring Confidential down, and Dororthy Dandridge. Once more former Confidential employee Howard Rushmore was the star witness. Other witnesses ranged from a prostitute paid by Confidential for information to producer Paul Gregory.

It was on 16 September 1957 that the trial went to the jury. The jury deliberated for 15 days at the Mayflower Hotel in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, it was on 1 October 1957 that the jury announced that they were unable to come to a verdict, with seven jurors for conviction and five for acquittal. The judge then declared  a mistrial. The prosecutor expressed a desire for a retrial, but it would never come to pass. It was in November 1957 that Robert Harrison agreed to stop covering the lives of Hollywood stars. In return, all charges were dropped by the state except for conspiracy to circulate lewd and obscene materials, for which the magazine paid a $10,000 fine.

Even if Confidential had not backed off coverage of movie stars, its days were probably numbered. It was in 1958 that Maureen O'Hara would achieve her victory over the magazine, crippling it further. With ongoing libel suits, Confidential would have had to have surrendered to Hollywood sooner or later. Regardless, no longer able to print the sort of lurid stories it once had about Hollywood stars, Confidential rapidly lost its once huge circulation. It was in May 1958 that Robert Harrison sold Confidential to Hy Steirman, who tried to avoid any sort of celebrity gossip. The once powerful Confidential would change formats and owners several times over the years, limping along until it finally folded in 1978. It was that same year that the magazine's founder, Robert Harrison, died.

Howard Rushmore, the other major player in the saga of Confidential magazine, would not last much longer after the magazine's trial. It was on 3 January 1957 that Howard Rushmore shot his wife and himself following an argument in a taxi cab. He had apparently been suffering depression after his wife had left him only two days before Christmas. Others who played major roles in the history of Confidential would have much happier fates. Maureen O'Hara, the first actor to ever defeat a scandal sheet in court, would continue to have a successful career, making her last appearance in a  television movie in 2008. Liberace would also continue to have a long and successful career. Throughout his career he continued to deny accusations of homosexuality. It was in a 2011 interview that close friend Betty White confirmed that the pianist was indeed gay.

While Confidential would enjoy only a relatively brief period of success, it would forever change the shape of celebrity gossip. Until the Fifties fan magazines and even gossip magazines were dependent upon the Hollywood studios for pictures and stories about movie stars. Confidential created new ways of gathering information about the stars through a network of paid informants. Since the magazine could not rely on the studios for pictures of the stars, it had to obtain photographs taken through other means. Eventually this would lead to the development of the phenomenon known as paparazzi. And while there was a good deal of controversy over the contents of Confidential, it would change what was considered acceptable for gossip magazines to print. Throughout the Sixties and into the Seventies, both gossip magazines and even the mainstream press would no longer shy away from covering scandals about the stars. Indeed, some stars would even seem to court scandal, with the idea that it could actually help, rather than hinder, their careers.

While Confidential and even a few of its competitors would limp along through the Sixties and even the Seventies, new gossip magazines and scandal sheets in the same mould would arise to take their place. The National Enquirer had originated as a broadsheet,  The New York Evening Enquirer, in 1926. In 1953 it was transformed into a tabloid with its focus firmly on gore and violence. In 1957 it went national and changed its name to The National Enquirer. It was in 1967 that The National Enquirer shifted from its "Mom Boiled Her Baby and Ate Her" type stories to celebrity gossip firmly in the tradition of Confidential. In 1974 it would be joined by a competitor also in the tradition of Confidential, The Star. Today it is impossible to escape celebrity gossip in the mould of Confidential. It has even invaded the web in the form of TMZ and perezhilton.com.

While the past 60 years since the founding of Confidential have seen even more gossip outlets founded in its image, it remains perhaps the most scandalous magazine ever published.  Much of what Confidential published does not seem that scandalous today, but for the era in which it was published it was downright shocking. This was the era of the Lavender Scare, when homophobia was at its height and homosexuality was still listed as a mental disorder in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. It was a time when interracial marriages (at the time termed miscreation) were still illegal in many states. It was a time when premarital sex was still frowned upon and any hint of adultery could end a star's career. In that respect, Confidential went much further than any of its successors, such as The National Enquirer or The Star, ever did. Sadly, the days when celebrities' private lives could remain private are long since gone.

1 comment:

grandoldmovies said...

Really enjoyed your excellent 2-part series on Confidential magazine - such a fascinating part of both Hollywood history and the 1950s era.